Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Public Impatience With Science

Argonne's Director Robert Rosner spoke to the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, a not-for-profit organization is committed to promoting science and technology in the greater Chicago area. Some of the things he said bears repeating here, especially on the part where it takes decades for a basic scientific breakthrough to make it to the consumer.

Computers were around for 30 years before they became useful to business, and solid-state electronics consumer products didn't catch on until a generation after the transistor was discovered, said Rosner, director of Argonne National Laboratory.

"When a basic discovery is made, no one has any idea what it will lead to," said Rosner. And this disconnect is behind the financial crisis now afflicting Argonne and its sister institution, Fermilab.

"People believe that basic science can wait," said Rosner, "but the truth is that if you don't do the basic research today, you won't reap the fruits in 20 to 30 years. We have to invest now to benefit our children and grandchildren. But to a culture that expects instant results, such patience is a hard sell.

I think most people do forget that. Even within the sciences themselves, many forget that some of the advancement in biochemistry, for example, were brought about because of something that was developed in physics years before. Synchrotron light sources came out of research in high energy physics, and it took many decades before the field of biochemistry, medicine, and pharmacy realized that such facilities can be valuable to their work. This is just one example of something that came out of basic research that appeared to have no direct application at that time.

Just how do we convey that to the public and, especially, those politicians?

Edit: The original link appears to no longer work. However, there is a link directly to the Chicago Council on Science and Technology with a video of the talk.


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